It's not often that a musician ventures outside his or her box. Imagine Justin Timberlake singing emo or perhaps Ani DiFranco covering an N.W.A. ditty. Although not unheard of, two things prevent such musical bastards from gestating: first is the talent factor; second is the marketability. Musicians are packaged and sold as a commodity and rely on a stable brand name and image to retain buyers. Deviating from your brand can all but guarantee commercial hardship. Genre jumping also requires a degree of talent that few artists possess.
Bluesman Taj Mahal, appearing at 32 Bleu Tuesday, April 27, possesses the talent and the artistic curiosity to successfully extend beyond his familiar blues medium -- a trait he has displayed since day one in his musical career. In 1964, Mahal formed the Rising Sons with guitarist Ry Cooder (catalyst of the Cuban sensation Buena Vista Social Club). The band signed with Columbia but only recorded one single. Columbia felt the single was unmarketable and it remained on the shelves for two decades. The single fused non-blues elements with traditional blues sounds, anticipating a trend by 20 years.
Mahal continued with Columbia as a solo artist and, in 1968, released his debut solo album -- a retro blues style, hearkening back to the days of acoustic blues. Returning to acoustic blues and remaining commercially viable was not an easy task. Bucking the trend meant contending with legendary Muddy Waters, who had switched to electric blues and thus influenced the entire style. Mahal's next release, Natch'l Blues, continued in the same acoustic vein and, together with his debut, occupies a significant position in the canon of the 1960s blues revival.
Mahal solidified his reputation as an earnest bluesman with his third album, Giant Step, a half-acoustic, half-electric hybrid. And as quickly as he earned this reputation, he began to explore other musical forms. His subsequent projects included Caribbean rhythms with Happy Just to Be Like I Am, New Orleans brass sounds with The Real Thing, and reggae syncopation with Mo' Roots.
Mahal suffered for his musical exploration. He remained unreleased for most of the '80s and was often criticized as being indulgent with his ability to pick up almost any instrument. Unfazed, he continued to pursue his unique blues while simultaneously working on non-blues idioms. Intensely curious about the African musical diaspora, he worked with folk, jazz, reggae, gospel, R & B and zydeco. Also exploring Latin and Hawaiian styles, Mahal emerged in the 1990s with a flurry of commercial releases displaying his ability in traditional, yet unique, revival blues and non-blues.
Arguably the best example of Mahal's musical range is the 1993 release of World Music in which he visits no less than a dozen musical languages. Mahal plays numerous instruments, sings in French patois for the zydeco selection, and captures the energy of an earlier age with his version of Bob Marley's "Catch A Fire."
Whether Mahal will tend toward his blues revival style or drift globally during his local performance remains to be seen. Either direction, however, will display a degree of talent that makes him one of the leading roots musicians of recent times.
Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise will take the stage before Mahal, adding yet another dimension of roots to the evening. The blind singer, originally from Alabama, has been making music since the 1970s. Expect funky R & B with rock tones from this Detroit-based outfit.
-- Aaron Menza
Taj Mahal & the Hula Blues with Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise
32 Bleu, 32 S. Tejon
Tuesday, April 27, 8 p.m.